The Shame and Guilt of Soldiers in The Things They Carried, a Short Story by Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien’s story, The Things They Carried, is more than just a war story, It beautifully depicts the shame and guilt that soldiers had to live for throughout the war, and unfortunately, the rest of their lives, Through the stories and experiences of soldiers in Tim O’Briens vicinity, the Alpha Company, we get to know them not as mindless soldiers fighting for their country, but as people Shame and guilt is a recurring theme in the book; all soldiers in the story have experienced it one way or another.

At times it hinders their duties as a soldier, other times it helps them mature as soldiers or as people Tim O’Brien shows us the emotional impact that guilt and shame can have on soldiers in the line of duty, both positive and negative that can last well past the end of the war“ Jimmy Cross, the ”leader” of the Alpha Company is a perfect example of how under immense shame and guilt, one can realize their mistake and change for the bettert Jimmy Cross, under the guilt of his “subordinates” death, blames himself and undergoes a drastic transformation, which helps him mature as a leader and develop as a person.

Jimmy Cross’s realization that he was in fact an inept leader came after moment of Ted Lavender’s death.

Jimmy Cross, the once lovestruck distracted lieutenant, takes it upon himself and carries the burden ofTed Lavender’s death, to reform as a leader of the Alpha Company “He felt shamei l-le hated himself.

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He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war”. Jimmy Cross felt guilt for Ted Lavender‘s death, and also shame for his abandoning of his duties as a soldier, Although Ted Lavender’s death is unfortunate, it initially paved the way for Jimmy Cross‘s development as a leader. By daydreaming on the job, Jimmy Cross escaped all responsibilities he had as a leader of the Alpha Company, something he realized upon Ted Lavender’s death, On the job, Jimmy Cross secluded himself from reality by succumbing to his innermost fantasy about walking on the beach with his imaginary girlfriend or “buried with Martha under the sand”.

Upon realizing his mistakes on his line of duty, Cross takes all responsibility for Lavender’s death and burns Martha’s letters and her two photographs. “On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s lettersr Then he burned the two photographs”  This action from Cross marks his essential growth as a leader, he understood the problem he had and what was distracting him from leading and took firm action to resolve it The letters and photos of Martha was the only memento and attachment that Cross had of life outside the war, which makes the disposal of them all the more important as it holds deep sentimental value for Jimmy Cross The burning of the only thing Cross had that related to his love interest and connection to outside of the war helped change cross from an indecisive and incapable leader to one more stern leaders “On the march he would impose strict field disciplines He would be careful to send out flank security, to prevent straggling or bunching up, to keep his troops moving at the proper pace and work at the proper interval”.

This shows the stark transformation from the once daydreaming and lax Lieutenant Cross. Throughout and before the war, the author Tim O’Brien has made many decisions under the influence of shame and guilt. The moral dilemma that Tim O‘Brien faced before going out to war is also caused by shame and guilt, Tim O’Brien, reluctant to go to war, feels guilty about participating in a war he was against – one that he advocated against in college. The fact that he was highly against the war was apparent in his decision to initially (almost) run away from home and cross the Canadian border in hopes to evade being drafted to war. On the verge of dodging the draft notice, Tim O’Brien realizes that in doing so, he would be shaming his country and his family, and he would be seen as a coward by his community, which was something that he did not want.

“All those eyes on me-the town, the whole universe-and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment“. Tim O’Brien‘s decision to go to war was not because of love for the country like some soldiers might have, but because of shame This shame and embarrassment served as motivation for Tim O’Brien to go to war, the shame helped O‘Brien make a rational decision in not abandoning his family, something he wouldn’t have seen had he not experienced shame. Tim O’Brien, under guilt, also attempts to escape reality in the war – the reality that he has killed a man in his youth, Tim O’Brien attempts to escape realism by creating a story for the man he killed. Even though he knows nothing of the man he killed, O’Brien gives the man a story of his life before the wart “Even as a boy growing up in My Khe, he had often worried about this. He imagined covering his head and lying in a deep hole and closing his eyes and not moving until the war was even . i He had no stomach for violence He loved mathematics“ . This man is the reason according to O‘Brien that “This is why 1 keep writing war stories”.

O’Brien creating a backstory and also envisioning the man alive, “In the ordinary hours i .l’ll look up and see the young man step out of the morning fog” is an attempt to salvage his guilt from killing an innocent man. By envisioning the man alive, O’Brien can satisfy the guilt he has as he pretends the man is not truly dead, The shame of abandoning his family and the backlash he would receive led him to war, and the guilt from killing the man led O‘Brien to write this book. O’Brien’s decisions throughout and before the war are influenced by shame and guilt, “Norman Bowker,” a member of the Alpha Company symbolizes the impact that after war guilt can have on a person, emotionally and mentally Upon the death of his friend Kiowa in the Alpha Company, Norman Bowker repeatedly blames himself, as he believes the he could‘ve done more “The truth,“ Norman Bowker would‘ve said, is ”I let the guy got Maybe he was already gone. He wasn’t. But maybe. No, I could feel it. He wasn’t, Some things you can feel”.

Here we get a glimpse at the true purpose of Bowker’s depressing story, Bowker experienced heavy guilt and remorse for letting Kiowa drown, which transitioned into his life in the real world after the war was over “His father would’ve been quiet for a while, watching the headlights against the narrow tar road. . . “There‘s still the seven medals” . Bowker needed someone to talk to, someone to help him get this guilt off his chest, he turned to his father, who completely missed the point of Bowker’s story. Bowker needed someone to blame him for his friend‘s death, someone who would listen to him, but his father only looked at his achievements and nothing else. The guilt of Kiowa’s death would later consume Bowker, it was like a part of Bowker was left in Vietnam, hence Bowker’s feeling that “there was no place to go” and feeling lost.

Bowker, who was consumed by guilt would later hang himself, “Norman Bowker who three years later hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA in his hometown in central lowa”. Norman Bowker essentially symbolizes the effects and impact that survivors guilt can have. There is more to war than just baseless killing and fighting for your country, Tim O’Brien displays this as he incorporates the high levels of guilt and shame that many people around him experienced in the Vietnam wart Tim O’Brien portrays how shame fits into war, he shows us how the guilty like Norman Bowker would have felt. Veterans of war are often plastered of guilt for their fallen comrades The shame and guilt often makes decisions for us, whether good (Tim O’Brien’s case) or bad (Norman Bowker). The guilt runs deep, changing the lives of many soldiers, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Overall, the impact of shame and guilt can dictate one’s actions and have a long lasting impact on their life.

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The Shame and Guilt of Soldiers in The Things They Carried, a Short Story by Tim O'Brien. (2022, Jul 13). Retrieved from

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